White House Report On Faith-Based Initiative Aims For State Boost

Hoping to give new momentum to its “faith-based” initiative, the White House last month issued a report claiming that in 2003, $1.17 billion in federal funds went to groups with religious affiliations.

The report, issued early in January, detailed grants doled out by five federal agencies. According to the tally, about 8 percent of the $14.5 billion spent on social programs in 2003 ended up in the hands of religious organizations.

Critics of the initiative said the White House report was designed to encourage state officials to give support to religious agencies by highlighting federal practices.

The report is useful because it provides some specific details about the faith-based initiative. Although Bush and his supporters often portray the initiative as a revolutionary approach, it turns out that most of the religious groups getting money under the program have been doing so for years.

Many of these organizations, such as Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish relief agencies, generally provide secular services to all of those in need and do not proselytize or discriminate in hiring.

In Florida, for example, the report noted that Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida received $1 million in 2003 to help political refugees. Karen Rieley, an official with the group, said the organization does not try to convert anyone.

“We provide services as Christians, not for the purpose of conversion,” Rieley told the Associated Press.

In Florida, the news service noted, most of the money was given to continue existing projects by religious groups. Many of these programs are many years old, pre-dating the Bush initiative.

An analysis by the AP found that was the model nationwide. Most of the money, AP correspondent Laura Meckler reported, went to “well-established, large social service providers that have received federal money for decades.”

Furthermore, the $1.17 billion figure is somewhat deceptive because it includes two expensive federal programs that account for half of that figure: a program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that pays for housing for low-income people, and Head Start, a popular pre-school effort for low-income families. While Head Start is sometimes sited at houses of worship, it is not a religious program.

Even more curiously, the AP found that some of the groups listed as “faith-based” in the report denied that they even have a religious component. White House staffers apparently went through lists of grant awardees and singled out any with a name that sounded faith-based.

The list, however, did include some grants that staffers at Americans United say could be troubling. In Missouri, the financial services arm of the Assemblies of God, an aggressively evangelistic denomination (that counts outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft as a member), received $1 million from the Department of Health and Human Services through a program called “Assets for Independence.”

The list was also rife with small grants made directly to churches. In Arizona, for example, the Church of the Beatitudes received $225,000 from Health and Human Services for “ethnic community organizations.” In Louisiana, a Baptist church in New Orleans received $374,250 from the Department of Education to run “community technology centers.” Barring direct oversight, it’s not possible to know if there is significant sectarian content in these programs.

The list also shows numerous grants to the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian denomination noted for evangelism as well as social work.

Many grants are also listed for “abstinence-only” sex education programs, which critics say are often rife with sectarian content and medical inaccuracies.